Mako Vunipola reveals secret behind his success: 'I just watch as much rugby league as I can'

Gavin Mairs
Mako Vunipola is mentally and physically fresh after returning from an injury lay-off - Paul Grover

In his spare time Mako Vunipola likes to watch Australian rugby league, and in particular the Sydney club Parramatta.

Part of the attraction, says the Saracens prop who is of Tongan descent, is that they have a “lot of Islanders” in their team.

The other main factor in the England forward’s devotion to the 13-a-side code in Australia, however, is more revealing.

Vunipola, fit again after a knee injury that sidelined him for 10 weeks and restricted his appearances during the Six Nations to cameos from the bench, was one of the standout players on the world stage last year.

If his scrummaging prowess is one of the constant work-ons, the 26-year-old took his loose play to new levels for England last season. One of the secrets behind his remarkably intelligent running lines, which he uses to great effect both in defence and attack, comes from his interest in rugby league – and from chats with his club and England team-mate Owen Farrell.

Mako Vunipola watches as much rugby as he can

“A lot of it has come down to just watching a lot of rugby,” said Vunipola, when asked about his ability to identify where the space is, particularly as a defender. 

“We have a lot of players here who are students of the game so Owen Farrell, in particular, is one person who whenever we talk about the game you sit down and you have to listen.

“The way he sees the game is a lot different to some other players. For me it is just watching the game as much as I can – if it is on TV, or other teams we are playing. If you are playing a team you are reviewing them. It is always seeing players who are playing in your position and seeing what they are doing and working a bit smartly.

“Different teams have different ways of playing. I wouldn’t say [I watch] one particular player, but it is just watching loads of teams and seeing the way they play the game.

“The biggest thing for me is how some of the players just play a bit more smart. Other players, they work hard, but you have got players who are clever to run to space first.”

Vunipola’s injury, which he sustained playing against Sale Sharks in December, not only gave him the opportunity to finesse his rugby intelligence, but also, critically, has allowed him to benefit from the mental refreshment provided by the lay-off.

The shake-up in the global season from 2019 has raised fresh questions about the welfare of the sport’s elite players. Even if players are rested throughout the new 11-month season, there is the mental pressure of not being able to switch off.

“As players you hear [about] this 11-month season and you think, ‘How are we going to get through that?’ ” Vunipola said.

“It is not my job to plan the season – the high-ups make their call – but for us as players it is difficult. Even now with summer tours you have to kind of keep on top.

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“The amount of work I do before training now is a lot different to what it was three or four years ago. It takes a lot longer to get the body going, and that is part of professional rugby. What you do away from the rugby pitch is more important now than it ever was.

“As players, and as human beings, you want to be out there every time. And every time there is a chance to play for your club or your country you want to put your hand up. You want to be on the pitch and playing – every player wants to play every game, and that is the problem. As human nature calls it you have just got to crack on.”

For now, though, Vunipola is in the best shape he has been at this stage of the season, even if he admits there are now parts of him “that take a bit to get going and fire up the body” because of past injuries.

Facing Glasgow Warriors tomorrow in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup will be the perfect platform to showcase his talents, both for his club and to press his claims for a Lions spot.

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“More than anything I think it is mentally,” added Vunipola. “Physically you are always going to feel aches after the games but mentally you feel a bit more refreshed having a couple of weeks off, even though it was for injury.

“You come back and you are more excited before training – not that I am not [usually] excited – but you are more excited, and there is a bit of bounce about you as well.

“I definitely have a bit of that – and especially being away for a bit, and then going away for England as well.”

If Glasgow will be wary of Vunipola’s impact in the loose as a ball-carrier and defender, the front-row union out there will be heartened to know that even though he has a strong interest in the running side of the 13-a-side code, his favourite aspect of the game remains the set-piece.

“Either a scrum penalty or a driving-maul try would probably be up there in the top two,” Vunipola added. “It is always nice to get your hands on the ball in space but for me it is bread and butter, the set-piece up front.

“Getting a penalty try is lovely – and every time you get a mauling try is also lovely.”

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